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Autonomous surveillance drones are heading indoors but at what risk to cyber security?

by Josef Kafka

The technological march towards complete surveillance has turned another corner with the invention of self-charging indoor drones, but security experts warn the risk of a data breach or cyber attack on drones by hackers could leave your company less secure.

Two technology companies have teamed up to create the world’s first fully autonomous surveillance drone to patrol inside buildings and identify security breaches.

The joint venture between German-based drone infrastructure company Skysense and Spanish geographic information system company Avansig has developed the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, for multinational security giant Prosegur.

Programmed to follow a defined patrol route through a building, the flying camera obtains a 360 degree view of its surroundings and transmits a live-feed as it travels. From there it can detect potential security risks, such as a window left open or the presence of an intruder, and send an alert to a human in charge of monitoring the feed. It can even charge itself from a nearby charging point.

In a blog post about the project to create an autonomous indoor surveillance drone, Skysense summed up how the technology interacts. “Prosegur’s surveillance drone can execute its own patrol route and land itself on Skysense’s charging pad to recharge…During surveillance patrols, the drone records and streams real-time video, and sends alerts to the security central station when potential security threats or breaches are discovered.”

Using surveillance drones is attractive to security companies as a cheaper alternative to employing human security guards to carry out patrols. Although the initial outlay for such new technologies is still high at present, once it has been purchased the technology can operate continuously for little to no extra cost, as unlike employees, machines have no costly requirements including wages, breaks to counter fatigue, paid holidays or sick leave, which can make up much of a company’s overhead. As the technology ages and becomes more common, prices will inevitably drop, making these kinds of drones even more attractive.

The technology has other advantages for business too, giving greater camera visibility and removing blind spots that are common with traditional wall mounted CCTV and making it far more efficient than walking corridors at night. It’s likely they will quickly be incorporated into the security systems protecting highly sensitive premises including military bases and airports.

But with these benefits come severe risks. Drones are largely unregulated and there is currently no real nationwide framework governing their use. Hobbyists are free to purchase and fly a drone without any kind of license while those wanting a drone for commercial purposes must simply complete a short course to gain their ‘Permission for Commercial Operations’ (PfCO) to obtain one.

This ease of access to drone ownership, coupled with a lack of public debate surrounding this burgeoning technology, is a cause for alarm among some security experts. A 2016 report commissioned by policing think tank the Police Foundation entitled Community Policing & Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS): Guidelines to Enhance Community Trust praised drone technology for its potential to improve efficiency and police officer safety, but also admitted the public had “understandable and legitimate concerns about privacy risks” associated with drones. The Civil Aviation Authority, which oversees the use of UAVs, has discussed creating a register for all drones purchased, so ownership can be tracked and traced much like the vehicle registration system, but so far nothing concrete has materialised.

Autonomous indoor drones have been designed to require as little input from people as possible – which means a reduction in the likelihood of human error. However, this also means there is less chance for human judgment to be involved, which is often necessary for certain environments such as around vulnerable people or in schools.

The security risks posed by hacking and other data breaches are high - drones are essentially little flying computers, and so embedded with “cyber vulnerabilities”. In fact, the US Army recently abandoned the use of DJI drone technology. According to a leaked memo from 2017, there were found to be serious “operational risks” associated with DJI technology, though specific details have not yet been revealed.

Finally, so great is the risk of security breaches from unlicensed or unwanted drones on private property that companies are now investing in their own methods of hacking drones to bring them down. Italian security firm Selex has developed the Falcon Shield Counter UAV system, which can rid an urban area of unwanted drones through the use of radio frequencies which are able to disrupt or take command of a drone. This anti-drone security sector is expected to explode in growth alongside the proliferation of drones, with some experts predicting the anti-drone market to be worth $1.85 billion by 2024.


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